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Veteran Tandem to Steer Caps Down Stretch

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
A lot has changed on the Washington hockey landscape over the last decade, but one of the constants has been Olie Kolzig between the pipes for the Capitals. Since Bill Ranford absorbed a point shot in the midsection in Toronto on opening night of the 1997-98 season, Kolzig has been the Caps’ go-to guy in goal.

Over the past nine seasons, Kolzig’s workload has had a classic arc. His start totals beginning in 1997-98 are: 63, 64, 72, 72, 70, 65, 63, 58, 53. A knee injury cut into his total last season; he has started 38 of Washington’s first 50 games this season. Continuing at that pace, he would wind up breaking the bell curve arc outlined above with 62 starts.

Washington has 32 games remaining after the All-Star break. It remains to be seen how many starts Kolzig will get as the Caps vie for their first playoff berth in five years, but if Caps coach Bruce Boudreau’s scheme goes off according to plan, the number will likely be 20 at the most.

“I haven’t read the schedule [as far as] who is playing goal,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself. But in a perfect world, you’d like to have Olie two and [Brent Johnson] one, Olie two and [Johnson] one where Olie is getting some rest and Brent is getting some work. We assume that we’re hopefully going to go far and we’re going to need that second guy.

“I just think the second half – whether [Kolzig] was 37 [years old] or 25 – knowing how long seasons can drag on, that it would benefit both to keep them sharp but not playing him [as much] and to have another guy a little bit more rested than he would be on a normal basis.”

In the period of time immediately after Boudreau took over as coach on Nov. 22, Kolzig started 20 of 23 games. Johnson was sidelined for a portion of that stretch with a knee ailment, which afforded Kolzig less rest than he might otherwise have gotten during that span. Starting with his Jan. 23 start in Toronto, Kolzig also began taking morning skates off on days when he was scheduled to start. That practice is designed to conserve more of his energy for that night's game.

Since that 23-game stretch ended, Kolzig and Johnson have each gotten three starts. Washington has won five of those six games.

For Kolzig, it has been somewhat of a strange season. In the season’s first two months, he posted a 2.81 goals against average and a .902 save pct. The last time Kolzig had a lower GAA and a higher save pct. over a full season was 2002-03, the last time the Caps made the playoffs. But despite his relatively decent peripheral stats, Kolzig was 7-12-1 at the end of November.

Since then, his numbers have changed drastically. Kolzig has a 3.41 goals against average and an .864 goals against average. On the other hand, he is 10-5-3. It’s difficult to make sense of the incongruity of his numbers in the first two months and in the two months since.

“I’ve done interviews about this and it sounds like I’m making excuses,” says Kolzig. “I’ll be honest. I’m not playing as solid as I did the last two of years. There was a handful of games there for a two or three week stretch where I was giving up probably half a goal a game on goals that I don’t characteristically give up.

“Having said that, the system that we’re playing now doesn’t allow for a lot of shots. First of all because we keep the other team hemmed in their end for such a long time and it’s situation where if one piece of our system breaks down it’s a scoring chance. So I’m not facing 30, 40 or 50 shots a game, but the chances are still the same.

“Three months ago or two months ago I basically threw in the towel as far as stats go. To me, the bottom line is winning. Over my career, I’ve lost I don’t know how many 1-0 and 2-1 hockey games where I played well but the bottom line is, I lost. You know what? I was happier when we beat Ottawa 8-6 [on Dec. 29] than when I lost 2-0 to Boston [on Jan. 3] even though I played better in Boston. There’s just something about winning.

“[Jan. 17 against Edmonton] was an example. I gave up four but felt like I played a good hockey game. I made the saves when I had to and the shootout was obviously the best shootout I’ve had in my career.”

The Edmonton game was a good example. The Caps fell behind, but Kolzig kept it close until they rallied and took the lead. The Oilers tied the game in the third, and Kolzig made some key stops to get the Caps into overtime. He made another strong save or two in the extra session and then stopped all 12 shootout bids, enabling the Capitals to pick up two points.

Was it a vintage Kolzig performance? No. But it was as good as it had to be. The veteran goaltender has had a few games where he has struggled early but has rallied to make crucial saves, saves that have led to the Caps picking up points in the standings. A few nights later, Kolzig surrendered five goals on 15 shots in a 6-5 Caps shootout win at Pittsburgh. But if he doesn’t stop Evgeni Malkin one-on-one in the third period, the Caps get no points. If he doesn’t outduel Penguins goaltender Ty Conklin in the shootout, the Caps get one point.

The other side of the Caps goaltending equation is Johnson. After struggling in October (1-3 with a 3.53 GAA and an .885 save pct. in four starts), Johnson has been very good for the last three months. The 30-year-old native of Michigan is 5-2-1 with a 2.21 GAA and a .920 save pct. Since Boudreau took over, Johnson is 5-1 with a 2.05 GAA and a .926 save pct.

Combine Kolzig’s advancing age with Johnson’s recent performance, and there is little question that Johnson should be playing more.

“I think it’s going to work out for both of us in the long run,” says Johnson. “Getting into some games here will be great for me so I can see some action just in case something happens going into the playoffs. Giving him rest is a great thing for him because he has played so much hockey already up to this point. If I can just get in a game here and there it will benefit both of us. He is going to need some rest, because there is going to be a big push at the end. It’s not going to get any easier.”

You don’t have to tell Kolzig that.

“Five or six years ago, there were easy games,” he admits. “Let’s face it, the Atlantas, the Floridas and all these expansion teams that came in, you knew you were going to win. It’s not the case any more. Every game has meaning, and every game is [one that] anybody can win. The mental strain becomes more and then [more so] obviously with the shootout.

“With the way Johnny is playing, there is really no sense in me having to play that amount of games. Johnny got hurt so I had to play the 10 or whatever it was straight. With him playing that well I think it’s a great situation for the team. Maybe I can play two out of three or we split time down the stretch. I’m not looking to be greedy when it comes to that. I’m just looking to continue what’s going on here and get ourselves into the playoffs. I think our toughest [task] will be to make the playoffs. I think once we get in, we could be a real dangerous team.”

In the last two NHL seasons, there has been a strong correlation between goals against and making the playoffs. In 2005-06, only teams that fell within the league’s top 19 in regular season goals against made the playoffs. Last season, the top 15 teams in goals against were among the league’s 16 playoff teams. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning – 24th in regular season goals against – managed to slip into the playoffs among the league’s bottom 15 teams in goals against.

With the teams so tightly bunched in both conferences this season, clubs are all over the map as far as goals against right now. Ottawa leads the Eastern Conference standings, but ranks 23rd in goals against. Philadelphia leads the Atlantic Division despite ranking 20th in goals against. And Southeast Division includes four of the league’s six lowest ranked teams in terms of goals against per game, a group that includes the Capitals. The Florida Panthers feature the division’s best goaltending, and they rank 21st.

The Caps have given up more goals per game under Boudreau but have also scored at a much more frequent rate. If Washington’s young defense continues to improve and Boudreau continues to massage his goaltending tandem as well as he has lately, it could be enough for the Caps to claim their first playoff berth in five years.

“We’ve played a lot better as a team in general,” says Johnson. “Our defense is just unbelievable; our forwards are coming back. We’ve got guys who don’t dump the puck in are dumping the puck in and getting in on the forecheck. It’s huge. Everyone is buying into the system. You can tell. We score five goals, four the other night. We’re lighting the board up because we’re doing exactly what coach wants.”

Kolzig is set to see a lighter workload down the stretch than he has seen in the last decade. And traditionally, he has been a better goaltender after the NHL All-Star break.

Prior to the All-Star break, Kolzig is 188-196-42-13 with a 2.79 GAA and a .905 save pct. Afterwards, he is 105-93-21-8 with a 2.57 GAA and a .909 save pct.

“Maybe it’s because these are the dog days of the season,” Kolzig offers. “Maybe after the All-Star break you realize that this is the stretch drive and there is more emphasis and more importance to these games. I don’t know why that is. Maybe the All-Star break I get a rest and get revitalized. And with the light at the end of the tunnel and the playoffs coming, maybe there’s just a resurgence in the way you play. I try to approach every game the same no matter what day, month or what part of the season it is.”

A Capital since the day he was drafted in 1989, Kolzig’s contract is up at season’s end.

“I’m not overly worried about the contract situation,” he says. “If and when it comes to that, they’re either going to sign me for who I am or they’re going to go out and find somebody else. I think I’ve played enough hockey for this organization for them to know the situation and what type of person and what type of player I am. It will be up to them to make a decision on it.”

Both goaltenders are approaching career milestones as the stretch run begins. Johnson needs two wins to reach 100 and Kolzig is seven wins shy of 300 for his NHL career.

 “To think back to ’89 when I was drafted,” Kolzig begins, “I was just happy to see if I could get one game in the NHL let alone to try to win 300 games. I would never have foreseen that. It’s definitely something special and it says a lot about longevity. And then doing it with one team says a lot, too. If and when it happens, it will mean a lot when my career is done, there’s no question.”

Washington is fortunate to have two veteran goaltenders in their thirties, both of whom have had 30-win seasons in the league, and both of whom have tasted playoff success. They’ll both be chasing personal milestones down the stretch, but the man goal of both men is to help steer the Capitals back to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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